Let Kids Smoke

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Libertarians
quite properly believe the tobacco companies should be free to sell
cigarettes to consumers, without fear of liability. The smoker chooses
to take the risk of smoking, and he has a right to do so. Yet even
libertarians seem to accept the notion that cigarettes should not
be sold to minors. In the tradition of libertarian critical inquiry,
I have a one question for them: why? Why restrict the liberty of
R.J. Reynolds & Co. to sell to kids? After all, other vendors
sell kids candy and cokes, CDs and movie tickets. Presumably the
little crumb crunchers have enough legal capacity to form a contract
to purchase at least some consumer items. Why not tobacco?

Kids
are generally not allowed to engage in harmful or dangerous activities
(such as parachuting, rock-climbing) or to take actions with permanent
consequences (such as getting a tattoo, having a child) without
parental consent. The child’s consent alone is not enough. The argument
seems to be that cigarettes, too, are harmful or have permanent
consequences. Thus the child is not yet competent to choose to permanently
harm himself by smoking. The tobacco companies have been browbeaten
into repeating this line. R.J.
Reynolds states on its website
that it “does not want children
to smoke, not only
because it is illegal to sell to minors in every state, but also
because
of the inherent health risks of smoking and because children lack
the
maturity of judgment to assess those risks.”

But
this argument is flawed
. Even if we assume that smoking can
increase the risk of disease, it is widely known that quitting smoking
greatly reduces smoking-related risks. After all, as
anti-smoking fanatics routinely say
, It is never too late
to stop smoking.
They maintain, for example, that by quitting
smoking you will live longer and have a lower chance of having a
heart attack or cancer. Anti-smoking zealots and other assorted
health nuts never quite come right out and say that if you quit
smoking early enough, you eventually get back to normal. Yet, some
do admit that, at least for heart disease, “About 15 years
after quitting the risk is close to that of persons who have never
smoked.” And
they acknowledge that the sooner you quit, the better
.

But
all this means that youthful smoking, by itself, does not pose a
serious long-term health threat. Take a boy who starts smoking at
age 15. When he turns 18, he has already been smoking for three
years. At that point, he is mature enough to stop smoking, if he
wants. Surely, if he never smokes again, the effects of three youthful
years of smoking will wane as the years go by. It does not seem
plausible that a few years of smoking in his teens will appreciably
increase long-term health risks.

On
the other hand, as an adult, he can now decide to continue smoking,
despite the risks of doing so. This continued smoking may indeed
lead to detrimental health consequences down the road, if it continues
long enough. But any long-term harm incurred will be due to his
decisions, as an adult, to continue smoking. It will not be because
of a few years of youthful fun. Thus, the kid’s smoking does not
pose a long-term danger to his health. Only continued smoking after
he turns 18 does — but such a decision is within the adult’s
rights.

But
wait, it could be argued, the problem in this theory is that tobacco
(nicotine) is addictive. The newly-minted smoking adult cannot simply
choose to quit smoking, because of the addiction inflicted on this
body when he was a minor. Thus, because tobacco is addictive, the
kid is inflicting a long-term, permanent harm on himself, which
a child is not competent to do.

Rubbish.
Addiction is a myth. It is incompatible with free will. The 18-year
old clearly has a choice to continue smoking or not. The fact that
his body is chemically addicted to nicotine simply means that there
is a cost incurred — withdrawal symptoms, and the like — if he chooses
to quit smoking. But all choices have opportunity costs, and the
choice to stop smoking is no different than any other in this regard.

What
about the argument that parents have the right to prohibit their
kids from smoking, and most parents do oppose their kids smoking,
and thus selling to kids presumptively is done in violation of the
parent’s wishes? Some parents do permit their kids to make purchases,
if not for their own use, then for the use of adults — e.g., Dad sends
Junior down to the 7-11 to pick up a pack of Marlboro Lights. Why
should this sale be prohibited? As for kids who buy and smoke cigarettes
against their parents’ wishes — it is the parents’ job to discipline
their kids, not tobacco companies or convenience stores. Forcing
Junior to smoke a whole pack of cigarettes until he’s blue in the
face; or making him eat two or three cigarettes, as a boyhood friend
of mine experienced, ought to be sufficient to put the fear of God
in him for a while.

So
I say, let’s bring back the Joe Camel mascot — and recruit
Barney, Mickey Mouse, and Pokemon while we’re at it. Smoking is
undeniably cool. Let people enjoy it when they can. Smoking is for
the young.

July
25, 2000

N.
Stephan Kinsella is a patent lawyer in Houston. He does not engage
in the nasty habit of smoking cigarettes. Obviously, he does not
have any children yet. His personal website is located at www.stephankinsella.com.

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